Monday, April 20, 2009

A Sunday at the park, part two

It's called Ten Rivers, a stony bottom land where the Ovor gorhi, the river that drains the Terelj Valley, broadens into a maze of meanders separated by low islands of every size, some wooded, some gray flats of riverworn stone.

It is, in short, a marvel that we have made it this far. The winding road through the pass into the valley exposed a weak link in our convoy of two as the van, a Mitsubishi Delica many years and miles from the showroom, showed itself to be almost useless on anything but dry pavement. Sure, it is emblazoned with logos proclaiming it's four-wheel-drive prowess and the rally-style foglight array is nothing short of impressive. But those locking hubs at the front were also little more than cosmetic. Turn them to lock and the most we could get out of them was a feint whirring sound from the front differential. Our macho minivan was nothing more than a loser cruiser out of its element.

But, incredibly, we crested the pass and began the slow descent through snowy covered forests of spindly pine into Terelj. We didn't stop. Too tired from digging and pushing and running and pushing some more and dangerously low (we only had three more bottles) on vodka, we opted to soldier on.

So when the Isuzu Wizard plunged into the dark and cold waters of the Ovor gorhi in what would turn out to be about a dozen river crossings, I was perplexed that the van would even attempt to follow us. But follow us it did. Again and again and, even when the water covered the bumpers and sent the exhuast far under water to burble and bubble like an outboard, the van followed faithfully and both cars climbed up the final bank onto a rolling, snow-covered plain ringed by mountains.


Here and there fences cut the landscape and encircled gatherings of gers and small wooden houses. Ger is Mongolian for yurt, a Turkish word more familiar to us in America. It is a for round, temporary structures used here by nomads or anyone looking for a simple place to live. Our convoy headed for one fenced gathering made up of two gers, side by side, and a smallish house no bigger than a Home Depot shed. There were lots of animal shelters made of small logs and roofed with sod and dung.

A man with a wind-blown face shaded by a wide-brimmed hat welcomed us and swung the gate wide for the cars.

"Sanbainoh!" we said, as the cars disgorged their human and, yes, canine contents to stretch and yawn in the cold day.


Inside the ger it was warm and we sat, men on the left, women on the right, at a long table that was rapidly filling with dishes of every description. The vodka came out and, yes, the Dixie cups, too.

We toasted, "This is lovely."

We toasted again, "Yes, it is."

This was dried yogurt and this was lamb and these were pickles and, what was that? Those were...there was a discussion in Mongolian. I was pointing to what tasted like a kind of meat slaw. It was delicious. Turns out it was mutton in butterfat with salt.

Very good. Very good.

The meat arrived in a cloud of steam. An entire sheep had been slaughtered for the meal and through the steam I could see its little head nestled in the cooked innards of its broken body. All was gray and brown. I was hungry but I was not sure I was ready.

Someone handed me a little hoof. Others already had started on theirs and I became caught up in the vodka and the carniverousness of the moment and soon began tearing flesh from the bone, cleaning it, as Nara instructed me to do, until there was nothing left. It was like eating lobster in a way. There came a point where there was nothing left to eat but, yes, there was. Out of the corner of your eye I noticed that my neighbor, a veteran in the devouring of all parts of the sheep, had broken the little ankle in half and was tearing at the newly exposed cartiledge and sinews. I followed suit alternately picking and gnawing. Was I doing it right?

At last I was left with bones and a little hoof. One bone in particular, a little one not much bigger than the link on a bicycle chain, could be used as a sort of die, a plaything for nomadic children at loose ends. Roll it to see whether you get horse, camel, goat or cow by how the bone comes to rest.

I tried the heart and it is good. Liver, too? Tasted like, well, liver. And this? This was the first stomach of a cow filled with blood and cooked. The sausage broke apart and flooded my mouth with the warm, blackened jelly of the cooked blood. I swallowed again and again but it wouldn't go down and I was thinking way too much. At last, my smooth muscle won out. I was not a fan but I took a few more to see if it grew on me. It didn't.

And then it was time to wander. We visited the animals. The kids (human) held the kids (goat). I held one and it bleated in protest. It didn't like me and no matter how hard I tried to comfort the little thing all it wanted to do is get away and join its mother. Someone handed me another and then both were in my arms struggling and bleating. They laughed at me. I laughed, too, but I wished they would nestle in my arms to prove me the "animals love me" guy that I think I am.

A brief walk up the hill in back of the ger and the girls joined us to survey the valley below. We threw snowballs and rolled them in a failed attempt at a snowman. And here, in this valley ringed by snowy mountains, with two little girls laughing and running in the snow, I felt tears in my eyes for the first of several times today. It was partly the beauty of the moment that moved me but mostly it was the sudden and overwhealming wish to be with my family. To hear Chloe's voice join Yeroo and Altananga's. Marcus on my shoulders and Catherine by my side looking down at this perfect place, this tiny dot of time and place.

And then it was time to go back to the ger.

And there was more food. I had seen the cooking of the rest of the sheep earlier in the ger next door but I had no idea we were eating that, too. Another steaming bowl of mutton, ribs and thighs, shoulders and chops this time, sat steaming at the end of the table ready for round two.


Our host had a scapula in his hands and was pointing to me. There was a lot of conversation in Mongolian. Laughter. More Mongolian and a translation. He was going to tell my fortune but first he must clean it completely before putting it in the fire.

In it goes. We eat. I wait. More vodka.

At last the scapula was pulled from the fire and everyone laughed because the verdict was, apparently, clear.

"I am going to have another!"

"Another what?" I asked.

Another member of my family, Nara explained with a wicked grin.

"MY family?" I explained that I was donen with kids and that if my wife were pregnant there would be mixed emotions.

"Another WIFE?" Again, I explained, there would be problems ahead on that front.

Mongolian. Laughter and a translation. "She will get used to it," they say.

Somehow I doubt it.


  1. Wow, parts of that story are eerily similar to rice harvesting festivities in Thailand. I distinctly remember wondering how to eat a grizzly block of fat/skin/bone, and also fighting to swallow a piece of intestine before vomiting all over the table (at 7 am). The key was to chase it with rice whiskey as soon as possible and then politely decline seconds.

  2. You didn't tell me about that! Where is YOUR blog?